Do Expectorants Make You Cough More?

Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2022
Expectorants are generally safe and rarely cause any side effects if used as instructed.

Expectorants are designed to help clear phlegm or mucus from the respiratory tract by thinning the secretions. It adds liquid to the mucus, making it easier to expel.

Expectorants do not prevent coughing but inhibit the accumulation of mucus. Coughing is the body’s natural mechanism to remove microorganisms, foreign bodies, and excess mucus from the airways. Expectorants help clear the airways during or after a respiratory tract infection.

Respiratory tract infections can lead to the accumulation of mucus in the throat or lungs. Coughing up thick mucus is difficult, resulting in a nagging cough and chest discomfort. Expectorants add moisture to the mucus to cough up excessive mucus effectively.

Coughing performs the following function in the body:

What are the types of expectorants?

Expectorants are classified as natural or synthetic. The primary ingredient in any expectorant helps loosen the secretions in the airways to make the cough more productive.

Medicinal expectorants

Expectorants for medicinal use are available in pill and liquid forms.

  • Guaifenesin: The most widely used expectorant. It is the active ingredient of various medicinal brands, such as Mucinex (r) and Robitussin (r). There is guaifenesin present in numerous commonly used cough, cold, and flu medicines. Additionally, guaifenesin can be found as an active component in many over-the-counter cough suppressants, decongestants, antihistamines, and medicines for fever and pain. Guaifenesin is the sole expectorant that is approved by the FDA. Guaifenesin helps hydrate the mucus and decrease the stickiness of mucus.
  • Potassium iodide: A prescription-strength expectorant that is prescribed during a lung condition. Chronic lung conditions can cause an excessive amount of mucus, leading to further complications. These conditions include asthmabronchitis, and pulmonary emphysema. Potassium iodide helps loosen mucus, making it easy to cough.

Natural expectorants

Natural expectorants are an alternative when you are trying to clear chest congestion and loosen your mucus.

  • Menthol: A chemical found in nature that is derived from plants of the mint family. Menthol is an ingredient commonly used in cough droplets (throat lozenges) and syrups. It can provide an icy sensation and may help ease the symptoms of a painful throat. One study has reported that menthol could ease the muscles of the airway. This lets more air get into the respiratory system to improve the cough.
  • The extract of ivy leaves: A natural expectorant that is known for its effect on the production of mucus. One study suggested that medicines that contain dry ivy extract (obtained by boiling the leave in water and cooling it) could help treat coughs.
  • Hydration through oral intake: No matter which type of expectorant you are using, drinking water is vital. Drink more water or make an iced tea or cup of tea to boost your intake of fluids. Be sure to stay away from caffeine and alcohol whenever you can.
  • Steam: Inhaling warm, humid air can be beneficial for people who have a persistent cough. Steam can help loosen the mucus in the airway. Shower for a long time or use a humidifier to bring more humidity to your airways.
  • Honey: Loosen mucus and ease your cough. Honey can be added to your tea or mixed with warm milk. Do not give honey to children younger than 12 months old because they are at an increased chance of developing botulism.


Cold and Flu: Finding Fast Cough Relief See Slideshow

What are the side effects of expectorants?

Expectorants are usually safe and hardly cause any side effects if used as instructed. Side effects, if present, may vary for different drugs.


Some side effects associated with guaifenesin include:

Potassium iodide

Chances of having side effects with potassium iodide are high and probably more severe. Some of them include:

Natural expectorants

Natural expectorants, such as menthol, are usually safe to consume, except if you are allergic to menthol. The side effects may include:

Ivy leaf extract

Side effects of ivy leaf extract may include:

Drug interactions

Taking expectorants along with other cold and flu medicines can cause side effects, which include:

What are the precautions and contraindications associated with expectorants?

Practice the following cautions while using an expectorant:

  • Avoid these medications if you had any allergic reactions in the past
  • Use caution while driving or using heavy machinery because it can cause dizziness or drowsiness
  • Please read the labels carefully to identify any contraindicated ingredients present in the formulation
  • Some combination drugs may have pain relievers, so be mindful not to exceed the recommended dose of pain relievers
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding women should consult their physician before taking expectorants
Medically Reviewed on 10/5/2022
Image Source: iStock image


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